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Majority of the world’s countries are defenseless against Covid-19

Publié le 27.04.2020 Par By Brij Khindaria. The author is a columnist based at the UN in Geneva. He contributes to media in the UK, India and US. He is a committee member of the Swiss Press Club. 

Nearly 130 countries out of the 193 members of the United Nations are defenseless against the Covid-19 pandemic because they have little or no ability to obtain the medical materials necessary to fight it.

They are vulnerable because they do not have domestic production capacity and depend almost entirely on imported equipment. Their poverty is worsening because of lockdowns and steep falls in earnings from their chief exports, which are natural resources and cash crops. Prices for their commodities have dropped by 37% so far this year.

The pandemic has underscored the dependent position of poorer countries in the current world order and how that intensifies many perils for people in richer nations, including from contagion, massive debt, social violence and unmanageable migration. 

Many huge financial risks for richer nations would not have arisen if poor countries had more self-sufficiency, including indigenous manufacturing capacity, stronger financial institutions and higher-quality medical training. The solutions lie in equitable economic relationships not more loans that those countries cannot repay. 

UNCTAD estimates that poorer countries will need between $2.6 trillion and $3.4 trillion in 2020 and 2021 just to repay their foreign debt. Timely repayments are unlikely because of negative Covid-19 economic and trade impacts.

Rich country creditors will surely resist the hits involved in alleviating or forgiving such gigantic debt. So new financial engineering will have to be done to design sustainable solutions. That will surely involve profound structural changes in very short order to international financial institutions, including IMF and World Bank. 

The urgent lesson is that much greater efforts will be necessary in the Covid-19 world to strengthen the manufacturing and other capabilities of developing countries to reduce their dependence on subsidized finance from global institutions. 

A sea-change is necessary in how Western democracies conceive and operate multilateral cooperation. So far, they have used the weakness of poorer countries to capture markets for exports and exploit natural and other resources at low cost. 

At the same time, they have tied those countries into complex systems of loans to pay for goods and services exported to them. Global financial institutions provide subsidized loans but in exchange for painful austerity measures that usually suit creditors. 

Now, the goal must be to transform developing countries into partners by strengthening their domestic manufacturing and other capabilities, including generation of domestic investments through better banking. 

This will take time and have to be done in controlled steps. But there is no real alternative because the weaknesses of poorer countries are creating very high risks for people in richer nations from second-wave infections, crippling Covid-19 debt and stalled economic growth. 

UN experts think developing countries will need economic stimulus of $2 trillion to $3 trillion over the next two years. For Western taxpayers  to make so much money available seems impossible in light of their own debts caused by stimulus plans of over $7 trillion and central bank pledges to do whatever it takes to fight Covid-19.

The IMF estimates that rich country debt will rise by $6 trillion, to $66 trillion at the end of 2020, or 122% of GDP on average from the current 105%. Governments will try to grow their way out but severe global economic recession lurks a half-step away. 

It would be folly if to retain influence, rich nations do not to willfully moderate their unequal relationships with poorer countries to let them build more self-reliance and domestic financial depth. 

Covid-19 has demonstrated that trying to protect fortresses of affluence in a world of poverty and underdevelopment can wreck everyone’s aspirations for security and prosperity.  

US government debt is about $24 trillion and the 2021 national budget forecasts a debt of $28.5 billion within four years.  Asia’s 10 biggest central banks have invested $3.3 trillion in US treasuries and all need funds for Covid-19 stimulus plans in their own countries. Financial destabilization is just a hair’s breadth away. 

Remittances from migrants in the West are important contributors to national budgets in many developing countries. The World  Bank forecasts a fall in remittances of more than $100 billion in 2020 to $445 billion. They were the largest source of external financing in poorer countries last year, exceeding  foreign direct investment. 

The drop will be another hard blow as they struggle with Covid-19. The Pew Research Center estimates that remittances can provide 10% to over 30% of the GDP of many poor countries. 

Covid-19 has changed the world and business as usual is no longer possible. The US and EU may fight changes fearing that China will usurp too much power in global financial governance. More easy money for poorer countries may also cause a financial crisis worse than in 2008 because of weak central banking and indebted commercial banks. 

Even so, deep reforms to the current world order cannot be postponed without putting unbearable burdens on rich country taxpayers to finance stability in poorer nations. There is no alternative to giving them equitable conditions to build their strengths. 

Covid-19 is overwhelming even the world’s mightiest country with nearly 1 million infections and 53,000 deaths at this writing. If the US economy flounders under this assault, it will take the world down with it. 

That will surely threaten world peace by uncaging undemocratic forces, criminal behavior and terrorism around the world. 

There is urgency because experts forecast regular attacks by new pandemics. Serious systemic risks could emerge if angry citizens unleash political upheavals in Western democracies. 

If high risk pandemics do happen, the world’s 36 rich countries in the OECD club will not be able to protect their people by repeatedly freezing international travel and blocking immigration. The world is too porous for that.

It would create negative economic and social impacts on their own living standards while arousing the diplomatic hostility of poor country governments. 

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